Karly Hartzman On How Loudon Wainwright III, Mary Karr, & Her Hometown Of Greensboro Inspired Wednesday’s New Album Rat Saw God
It doesn’t take long to stumble on a passage in Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club that reminds me of Wednesday. “When the truth would be unbearable the mind often just blanks it out,” Karr writes right on page 9. “Then, like the smudge of a bad word quickly wiped off a school blackboard, this ghost can call undue attention to itself by its very vagueness.” She continues: “You keep studying the dim shape of it, as if the original form will magically emerge. This blank spot in my past, then, spoke most loudly to me by being blank. It was a hole in my life that I both feared and kept coming back to because I couldn’t quite fill it in.”
Karr’s definitive memoir of her childhood growing up in East Texas during the 1960s is just one of many influences threaded throughout Wednesday’s excellent new album Rat Saw God. Bandleader Karly Hartzman ingests what she’s consuming and throws it back up in curdled lines and striking imagery. Through it all, she tries to process her own upbringing, continually returning to her teenage years with a wry eye and an appreciation for the quotidian.
“I sometimes feel weird writing about that time in my life still, like I’m stuck there,” Hartzman said. “I was comforted by the fact that she’s recounting that time and she’s an older woman — because it does affect who you are for the rest of your life.” Hartzman was talking about a different book, Lynda Barry’s illustrated novel Cruddy, but the takeaway is the same as it would be for Karr, or any of the other older, reflective artists that Hartzman tends to be inspired by: The past is not something you can escape from.
“Memory always twists the knife,” she sings on one track. “Nothing will ever be as vivid as the darkest time of my life.” Or as the chorus goes to “Quarry,” a song whose vignettes play out like the blurriness of a window in a speeding car: “We had to add it to the tab/ To die we’d have to settle up.” You can’t hope to look into the future until you account for the past — fill in the dim shape of it, overcome its vagueness.
Loudon Wainwright III
KARLY HARTZMAN: I started writing this album right after Twin Plagues, which is how I always write — I’m on a continuous thread and then I group everything together when it makes sense. Whatever I’m listening to and reading always makes its way in there. Loudon Wainwright III was the most recent person I found where, after I found his music, I spent an entire day looking up every live video of him and every interview … He had a really long career.
I heard “Swimming Song” on Cocaine & Rhinestones, the country music podcast, and I got so deep into everything that I could find out about him. He’s such a downtrodden figure. For a funny comedian guy singer, his depression and sadness is really outward. You assume most comedians are depressive on the inside, but he was such a down-and-out dude and did his best to cope with writing through it. I don’t want to meet a lot of my heroes, but I would desperately want to have dinner with him. Seems like a guy in a really nice way.
I reference one of his songs on “Bath County,” the song “I Am The Way.” I lift a few lines from that song: “I can walk on water/ I can raise the dead,” “Every daughter of God has a little bad luck sometimes.” I wanted to tie in how obsessed I got with him and pay homage to that. What I’m listening to really ends up tying into what any album becomes, so I make sure to pinpoint that to say thanks in the music.
Lynda Barry – Cruddy
HARTZMAN: Owen Ashworth — who runs Orindal, the label we were on before — had that book at his house on a shelf, and me and him were passing book recommendations to each other back and forth. First off, the cover of this book feels like how I remember my childhood — rusty, grimy… I don’t know how to describe it, but I was immediately drawn to the cover. I don’t know if it’s completely autobiographical or what, but it’s about a childhood that’s out of the gaze of the big city, and what you do to pass the time with drugs and your friends in a small town. I identified with it so much. The goofy way she writes carries over to her comics, too. It’s the same thing that Loudon does with his music — this sad goofiness.
I think I could tell that her way of creativity might be similar to mine, where she’s expressing herself very quickly and vomiting out imperfect stuff and using the fact that it is imperfect to further illustrate the feeling. There’s something about it that I’m just really drawn to — the overall crustiness. When I think of nostalgia in general, it’s not sparkly and clean — it’s a crusty nostalgia. And cruddy, the title, is probably the best illustration of that. Nostalgia isn’t always this thing that is beautiful in hindsight. You can still be nostalgic for a painful time, just because you were feeling a lot.
HARTZMAN: I really wanted to tell a bunch of Greensboro stories with this record. Being raised in North Carolina is one thing, but even talking to fellow North Carolinians, it feels like the upbringing I had — especially in my middle and high school years — was really wild and specific. There was a huge house-party culture from the time that I was in middle school that was really unsupervised — in rich kids’ basements, a ton of alcohol I don’t even know where from. There was a lot of experimentation with drugs, and stupid drugs, like doing a whole bottle of Benadryl between three people thinking it’ll make you trip.
There’s also this really weird Southern family drama that was tied into that. There’s this sausage empire in Greensboro, Neese’s Sausage, and their whole family had insane drama happening all of the time, and you’d see them around. There was a string of rich-kid teen suicide in my high school as well. All of this was really dark and party-centric. It’s a really wild mix of things that I’ve tried so many times to talk about, and I think that this is the closest I’ve come with the music. Greensboro has this crazy culture of people trying to not be bored.
I wanted to talk about “Quarry” specifically because that song feels like it’s made up of the kinds of anecdotes that end up circulating around a small town.
HARTZMAN: The first two verses of “Quarry” are references to Cruddy: characters from Cruddy, using it as a baseline to set the tone. And the last two verses harken back to my actual life and family stories. So the brothers that are mentioned in the song are characters from Cruddy.
Then, in the third verse, that’s the one about my dad. When he was a kid, he burnt down a big field with a model rocket. And his brother, my uncle — my dad’s side of the family is Jewish, and there was a church down the street and he got that church’s preacher’s daughter pregnant when they were in high school. He sat us down at dinner recently — he apparently blacked all of that experience out because it was really traumatic, and he apparently forgot he just had a kid somewhere — and he told us he had a kid that he found through a genetic service, one of those 23 And Me things, and my dad was like, “Yeah, we know, I was there for that.” I thought that was a really interesting family story that I wanted to tell.
And then the last verse is about Amanda, who lives across the street from us and whose house I’m actually looking at right now from my front porch. I’ve mentioned her before in songs, but she has … I’m kind of watching her fuck up life from afar. She’ll sit out on her front porch, and I know that she was pregnant recently, but she just drinks constantly and her and her boyfriend are always fighting and it’s really odd. You can hear everything like it’s right next to you because the valley is really reverberant, we live in a tunnel basically on a road between two stretches of mountains, and you can hear everything happening over there.
What leads you to want to immortalize these real-life stories in song? Because they change change between telling someone over dinner versus putting it to music and having people listen to it.
HARTZMAN: I think in the same way that I want to thank the songwriters that I’m inspired by in the lyrics, I also want to share what I’m doing with my family somehow. I think that’s why I wanted them in the “Chosen To Deserve” video because it’s about them. This thing that is happening to my music right now is the first time that my family has been publicly recognized for something — it feels interesting and cool and I want to have them participate in it. The way I see it … I have one male cousin who will technically be carrying on the Hartzman name, but I also want to do that through my music, log my family down in a book somewhere.
Mary Karr – The Liars’ Club
HARTZMAN: Our friend Sage was touring with us and doing merch, and she was reading this book and loaned it to me, and I ate it up. I was in the process of realizing the whole “your parents are just people” thing, that the limitations of anyone are the same limitations that apply to your parents, the realization that my parents have histories before I was born and have been through insane stuff in the same way that I have.
[Karr]’s dad was dealing with a lot of self-medicating with alcohol. She uses the bull/matador imagery for him, where he’s a bull that’s been stabbed and bleeding helplessly on the ground, and that same imagery was used to describe George Jones in that Cocaine & Rhinestones podcast, and I consumed both of those things at a really similar time. In the music industry, there’s a lot of confronting substances, seeing people try to figure out a relationship that’s not completely destructive. The book described a lot: how substances play into life, that fucked-up family history.
In the last interview we did, you said that you felt more like a writer than a musician. Do you still feel like that?
HARTZMAN: Oh yeah. I’m still getting my bearings with guitar. I have so many lyrics backlogged, and I try to write music to catch up with that. I’m trying to figure out what to do with all the things that I have to say because I think eventually with the album cycle, I’m going to be too behind and have too many songs and I don’t want to overwhelm people.
Do you try to write fiction or do you mostly stick to lyrics?
HARTZMAN: If I write fiction, I give myself a clear structure. “Quarry” is a good example. Half of that was an exercise in writing a fictional story with those characters from Cruddy. I was like, OK, imagine a street where all these people live and you go house by house telling their stories. If I’m writing something that’s not about me, I have to keep to a specific structure, and then the stuff that’s personal comes really easily.
You said that “Chosen To Deserve” was also based on a writing exercise. Is that a helpful way to generate ideas — going through an exercise and giving yourself a limitation?
HARTZMAN: For “Chosen To Deserve” specifically, I heard “Let There Be Rock” by Drive-By Truckers. The premise is describing a fucked-up childhood, basically, and I wanted to write that song but use all my memories instead and not let a riff overpower it. So on that song, I have a pretty simple guitar part. Drive-By Truckers have a lot of songs that are easy to pick up on guitar, and I don’t have a lot of songs like that. I want people to be able to play my songs more accessibly, so there’s three chords in that song. That was another limit I placed on myself: Keep it simple so other people can participate and write these stories.
HARTZMAN: He played a show at The Mothlight, which is the venue that me and Xandy [Chelmis] worked at before the pandemic, right before me and Jake [Lenderman] started dating. Jake opened the show, and I didn’t know who Richard Buckner was at the time, but I went to see Jake because I was like obsessed with him.
So Jake opened the show, and Richard Buckner gets up there and it’s just him and a guitar, but he’s just one of those people… I’ve always admired the kind of people that can just get up and tell stories. Storytelling is harder than you think it’s going to be. A lot of time, I’ll start telling a story and get halfway through and think, “Wait, this is stupid,” and then I just make the story really short and sweet so I can save people from having to listen to me talk.
But I’m so impressed with people who sit down and demand that people listen to a story that’s worth telling. He’s one of those people. In between songs, he was rambling about stuff that he’d done on tour, but it wasn’t self-indulgent or weird, it was just entertaining because he was a good storyteller. He’s telling these really explicit songs from his life, and then the songs are just completely abstract — you can’t follow any sort of story in his songs, but also somehow you can. They all have this overall tone, the way he pairs together words is abstract and you could never create a timeline of his life from his music, but there’s this through-line that’s indescribable about the way he pairs his words together. He wrote a book of poems, Cuttings From The Tangle, that do the same thing — his style of writing is just so crazy. I’m so inspired by it, I can’t even put it into words what he does.
Both Buckner and Loudon Wainwright are artists that have these sprawling discographies. Is that the sort of trajectory you’d want for Wednesday in an ideal world?
HARTZMAN: I don’t think my goal is to have as many albums out as possible, but I just want to go as long as I want to go, time-wise, and whatever comes out of that comes out of that. I don’t need to make an album every year — I’m not holding myself to that — but I want to be making songs when I’m older, as old as Richard Buckner is and as old as Loudon Wainwright is. You don’t necessarily hear about what they do when they do it, and I think that I would be OK with that. I know that from the pandemic, I wouldn’t survive without expressing myself this way. And that’s why it feels so scary sometimes, this whole blowing up in this way with the band, because if it were to ever go away, it would be devastating… It’s intimidating and overwhelming and happy-sad because as soon as something can come… I’m not fooled into thinking it can’t be taken away, but I’m really hoping that doesn’t happen. I would love to do this forever because it feels really, really good.
Rat Saw God is out now via Dead Oceans.